Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Review: The Turnaround by George Pelecanos

The novels of George Pelecanos breathe with life. They radiate reality. Not the pseudo-reality of, say, reality television. Most of that stuff is all contrived anyway. I’m not even talking about the reality of other works of crime fiction where the protagonist is, say, an unpublished writer/blogger who reviews crime fiction and solves one case by happenstance and, then, solves fifteen more as the series keeps getting renewed, the life of the hero never in doubt.

I’m talking about something more, something human, something true. These books are fiction, natch, but they don’t read like it. They read like a newspaper article or a story from "Dateline." The suspense in a Pelecanos novel starts its slow but inexorable rush early in each novel when he introduces each set of characters. Again, that’s not new or unusual. But there’s a certain originality to the way Pelecanos structures a novel. He shows you Group A and their daily life and he shows you Group B and their daily life. In a thriller or other mystery books, you know that Hero and Villain will meet and said meeting is inevitable and preordained. What makes a Pelecanos book unique is that, often, the two groups would never interact except for one event, something by chance, the event that is the central focus of whatever book you are reading.

Take Pelecanos’s latest novel, The Turnaround (2008). In 1972, when three white boys get drunk and high and decide to drive into an all-black neighborhood, nothing good will come from it. You know it, one of the main characters even knows it, but drive in they do. Yes, there is suspense as you read about their actions. But the real suspense starts in your head when you realize what the boys are going to do and what might happen. You’re mind plays tricks on you, making your heart beat faster and your palms sweat. You come up with all sorts of dire results. Pelecanos gives you one result and then shows you how it ripples across the decades.

The three teenage white boys drive into the black neighborhood, hurling racial epithets and food at three black youths. The problem occurs when the boys in the car realize that the neighborhood has no outlet, that there is a turnaround at the far end. There is only one way out and that road is now blocked by the three black teenagers. The lives of all six boys now come down to their actions that day. One white boy runs away, one white boy is killed, and the third is scarred for life. Two of the black teenagers go to jail while the third has to come to terms with his actions. The scene of the attack, told from the perspective of Alex Pappas, the boy who gets scarred, is heartbreakingly tragic. It shows the moment of clarity that laid bare the alcohol-fueled decisions that led him to that moment. And in that moment, he called for his dad.

The story shift to 2007 and reintroduces the five living men whose lives came together for a moment thirty-five years ago. Alex Pappas, the son of a man who ran a coffee shop, now runs the same coffee shop with his older son. Alex’s younger boy died in Iraq and Alex lives with the loss every day. Raymond Monroe, the black boy who didn’t go to jail, is now a physical therapist at Walter Reed Army Hospital in D.C. His son fights in Afghanistan. These two men meet again one day after Alex brings sweet treats to the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. The two men start talking, about life, about their decisions, about how their lives changed after “the incident.”

Into this normal life storms Charles Baker, the man who, as a teen in 1972, gave Alex his scars. Baker’s out for some payback, both from the white boy who ran away (now a successful lawyer) and Pappas. The other black youth, James Monroe, Raymond’s older brother, the one who went to prison for the murder of the white boy, is an ex-con whose life is nothing more than beer and being abused by his boss, the owner of the auto garage where Monroe works. Baker’s got designs on Pappas, his family, and things owed him. And, just like in 1972 when he was the bad kid, he’s still a bad influence on everybody. He wants what’s his and he’s gonna get it, one way or another.

Pelecanos’s books are part of the modern sub-genre of crime fiction that focuses on society and social issues. Actual crimes are committed in his books but they are not the focus of the story. These books are not whodunits. His books investigate the reasons behind a crime or, in the case of Washington, D.C., the environment that produces crime. Some of Pelecanos’s best books—Hard Revolution, Drama City, Soul Circus—have dealt with this theme. It’s a theme echoed in HBO’s “The Wire”—which Pelecanos helped to produce and even wrote a few episodes over five seasons, even recruiting two other members of this social crime fiction group, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price.

You could drop the label “Dickensian” on Pelecanos. I’m not talking prose-wise or intricate plots. I’m referring to Pelecanos’s penchant for airing the issues of the day without flair or fanfare. Life is life and here is what it’s like for the kinds of folks not normally the characters in mainstream fiction: blue-collar workers, black youth, ex-cons, parole officers, police. It’s probably this focus that keeps Pelecanos from gaining the fame and fortune some see as owed to the Dickens of D.C. When he gets his big book, his Mystic River, his overnight success will be decades in the making. (Note: you could argue that Hard Revolution is that big book. To date, I think it is.)

As a writer, what strikes me most is the way Pelecanos goes about presenting his stories and the tension and suspense therein. Some authors marvel at their own mastery of the English language and the myriad ways to write about two groups of teenagers about to inflict harm on one another. Even I fall prey to this kind of writing as readers of this blog can attest. Pelecanos is a blue-collar man and he is a blue-collar writer. He is a student of the Elmore Leonard School of Writing: don’t let the author be present in the prose. Pelecanos writes short sentences, without flair, workmanlike, unadorned, straightforward. He just writes what happens and lets the events and characters speak for themselves. You see, his stories are sufficient. I can’t help but wonder if some of those books out there with a lot of authorial flourish are not merely masking a sub-par story. I think that’s the case for some.

There’s a clear bravado to his prose, something Ernest Hemingway might appreciate. The men—and they are usually men—who live in Pelecanos’s world are tough. Their language is tough and it spills into the prose. Pelecanos’s love of westerns, both film and novel, infuse the feel of his novels. You certainly get that sense with the Derek Strange novels (Right as Rain, Hell to Pay, Soul Circus) even if it doesn’t show up with quite the same intensity here in The Turnaround. You could really feel the influence of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” with Pelecanos’s previous novel, The Night Gardener.

Not that Pelecanos is perfect. The Turnaround is a good Pelecanos book, but not great when compared to other titles in his bibliography. However, a good Pelecanos title is often head and shoulders above much of what’s out there. And he has his quirks. Late in the book, there’s a scene with two new characters so Pelecanos writes, “Two men sat in a gray Dodge Magnum that was facing east on Longfellow Street.” Nothing wrong there. But when the focus shifts back to Alex, Raymond, and James, sitting around drinking beer, we already know who they are and we knew they were going to get together. Pelecanos opens the scene as if Chapter 28 is really Chapter 1: “Three men sat in an alley under the light of a security lamp and a crudely painted sign reading ‘Gavin’s Garage.’” He then proceeds to introduce us to our three main characters as if for the first time. Same thing happens early on after he’s introduced the three white boys and then writes this: “Three teenage boys cruised the streets in a Grand Torino, drinking beer, smoking weed, and listening to the radio.” I think this might be the visual aesthetic coming to the fore, like directions for a screenplay. Nonetheless, it’s a little annoying. Introduce characters and move on, using their names.

As you can expect, violence plays a role in this book but there’s less of it than you might think. When you think of crime fiction or mysteries, you might expect shoot-outs between gangsters and cops or books where the characters are not changed by violence. You want that kind of stuff—and I love it, I’ll be honest—look elsewhere. You don’t get that kind of thing in a Pelecanos book. You get real, honest-to-goodness violence, not contrived or convoluted. It’s the same type of random violence I mentioned in my review of Allan Guthrie’s Kiss-Her Good-bye. One moment there isn’t violence, the next second it’s there, and the last second, everything has changed and you can’t go back. Another dose of reality Pelecanos injects in The Turnaround and his other novels is the various reactions of the characters to violence. One of the characters in this book is killed and, right before the end, when he knows he’s going to die, the character loses bladder control. It’s wholly natural, a reaction any one of us would probably have. It helps books like The Turnaround ring true in a world where murder is real and lasting.

What I Learned As A Writer: Trust your story. George Pelecanos trusts that you, the reader, will read his book and go where he leads you. Granted, with this, his fifteenth book, he doesn’t have to start the novel with a killer sentence or paragraph like undiscovered writers like me have to do. But he does move ahead at a certain pace, never wavering, through the entire story, his workmanlike prose doing its job. He lets his characters act and speak for themselves. He doesn’t try to commit some literary gymnastics in order to keep you reading. The characters, as they are presented, are gripping. You want to read. You want to find out what happens when three white boys drive into a black neighborhood. You want to find out how, as men, these characters interact with each other after so many years gone by. Pelecanos believes in these characters. He compels the same of you.

If it is of a certain quality, good art—whether music, literature, art, dance, film, television, etc.—can change you. Some of this art stays with you long after you’ve closed the book or left the museum or turned off your TV. I read a lot of books and I’ll admit that not all of it is lasting. They were good at the time but the memories have faded. Not so with the novels of George Pelecanos. They stay with you, embed themselves in your brain, becoming part of your memory. That is a trait of a true artist. That is what it is like to read George Pelecanos. Do yourself a favor: make some new memories.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Music Review: No Place Left to Fall by Bill Champlin

Bill Champlin wears the mantle of a musician’s musician. He’s a studio wizard. He’s an in-demand vocal stylist and arranger. He shows up in places you’d expect—Toto CDs or on albums from other west coast musicians—and places you may not expect—from Amy Grant’s 1988 “Lead Me On,” Paulinho Da Costa’s 1978 album “Happy People.” He sang the theme song for the TV show “In the Heat of the Night.” He’s won Grammy’s for writing (Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone” and George Bensen’s “Turn Your Love Around”). And he’s virtually unknown to the general public.

Well, except for his tenure with Chicago. And even then, folks might have a difficult time actually naming him. “Isn’t he the other guy singing ‘Hard Habit to Break’ with Peter Cetera?” Yes. “Is he the guy that sings ‘Look Away’?” Still yes. After that, most folks draw a blank. Even his first band—with the hint right there in the band name—don’t give folks a clue as to who Bill Champlin is. That band name? The Sons of Champlin.

Like many artist, Champlin explores other musical ideas in solo albums. And last week, after a thirteen-year absence, Champlin released a new CD of all-original material. Not that Champlin hasn’t been busy. He toured extensively with Chicago every year, played a large role in Chicago’s Christmas CDs as well as 2006’s Chicago XXX, and released a CD of new material with his first band, The Sons. With “No Place Left to Fall,” many of the musical influences that have percolated in his other musical endeavors come to surface and shine.

One thing you immediately notice with any Champlin-touched tune is the impeccable musicianship. These things are slickly produced. Some might argue that they are over produced but, when you consider all the things you can do in a studio, it’s Champlin’s restraint that is a hallmark of his work. The thirteen songs on this new CD have lots of elements to them. It really takes some concentrated listening with headphones to make out all the little nuances Champlin deploys.

A major presence of this album is Champlin’s B3 organ. For folks like me who discovered Champlin’s work via Chicago, Champlin’s B3 organ sound was gradually introduced, first in concert in the early 90s. It showed up on the 22nd album, Stone of Sisyphus but, then that CD was never formally released until 2008. It wasn’t until Chicago’s big band CD, Night and Day (1995) that the B3 organ got it studio premiere. And it’s there, right on track one and playing underneath most every track. Chicago 25: The Christmas Album featured the B3 on more songs, especially on what I now consider to be the definitive take on “The Little Drummer Boy.” The B3 is prominent on Champlin’s other 1990s solo releases (be sure to check out “Mayday,” the live recording from 1997) as well. You can tell when Champlin plays a real one, too. The organic, natural quality of a real B3 is heads and shoulders above anything a synth can produce.

All this is to say that the B3 shines on this new album. Literally, from the opening notes on track one, the B3 is spread like honey over all of these songs, sweetening and making it all just taste a little better. The coolest thing about the B3 is the judicious way most organists play the instrument. It’s little tidbits here, a riff there, a counter melody under a rhythm guitar, the syrupy foundation of a swampy blues song, it’s just there. The smooth, silky quality of the B3 and blue-eyed soul of Champlin’s voice just go together you wonder why he didn’t start sooner. Two highlights of the B3 on the new album is “I Want You to Stay” and the opening, funkified riff of “Tuggin’ on Your Sleeve.”

Speaking of riffs, this Champlin dude can tear it up on rhythm guitar. Not like Van Halen or any of those guys who play thousands of notes per minute. (Remember the Emperor in Amadeus: “Too many notes.”) I’m talking about a competent musician who knows the instrument, what it can do, and, most importantly, how it can compliment the song in question or his singing. I know Champlin collaborated with long-time friend Bruce Gaitsch (the iTunes download does not include liner notes) but I don’t know which songs on which he actually plays guitar. But any Chicago concertgoer of the past couple of years where Champlin got out from behind the keyboard and strapped on a guitar knows what the man can do. And he does it well here.

One interesting acoustic guitar-based piece on the new album is “Look Away.” Yes, it’s the same song that went to #1 in 1988 and was transformed into an acoustic rendition on the 1995 Night and Day tour. Champlin uses the acoustic version as a starting point but basically creates a new song. He takes the song—where the intent of the words can certainly get lost amid the trappings of a power ballad—and brings out its quite personal and painful message. It’s not too big a stretch to say that if Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young ever sang a love ballad, it would not sound too different that this version. Oh, and if you want to know the kinds of jibs and jabs the B3 can add to a song, check out this song after the whole band kicks in.

Another feature of a Champlin-created song or album are the vocal arrangements. The Chicago Christmas CD is infused with multiple voices, layer upon layer, creating a vocal mélange that is greater than the whole. The same holds true here. More often than not, Champlin sings the lead and the harmony. It works although I have to admit it’s always been strange hearing a lead singer being backed up by himself. The opening vocal ensemble on “Never Let Go” is a perfect example of this type of vocal stacking. This song reminded me of the neat experiment Champlin did in the 1990s with Jason Scheff and two singers from Toto. On the CD, “California Dreamin’,” the four vocalist cover famous rock songs a capella with a lead singer and the backup singers (each man takes a turn at lead) doing all the instrumental parts. How cool is it to hear “Hotel California,” complete with the ending guitar solos, all done with voices. It’s a little like Take 6 if you need a different avenue into your memory.

When it came time to ask Champlin to join Chicago in 1981, it seemed like a no-brainer because both Chicago and The Sons of Champlin had horns. All of Champlin’s CDs have at least one song that puts the horns up front and in your face. This time out, it’s the Fat City Horns from Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns. And when they say fat, they really mean it. “Stone Cold Hollywood” is that song on this album. Six horns, bleeting and blowing, complete with a nasty bari sax, man, it’s like a tune from the dirty side of town. Did I mention the bari sax? Man, throw on some headphones and just listen for it. It’ll make you grin like you just ate all the cranberry sauce before the Thanksgiving dinner was supposed to start. You know it’s wrong but, damn, it’s so good.

Bill Champlin emerged from the San Francisco scene in the late 1960s. In his outlook on life, making music, and the music biz, he’s never really left that time. You go on over to his webpage and the forum there—yes, he interacts with fans—and you can get a taste of what I’m talking about. He doesn’t say “thing,” he says “thang.” He doesn’t say “love,” he says “Luv,” drawing it out, nodding and winking, where you know how he’s meaning it. And he doesn’t mince words. There’s a great interview up on YouTube (here’s the link from my page) from earlier this year where Champlin tells you what he thinks and doesn’t back down from it. A nice quality from a member of a business that too often tries to please the suits and the audience with pablum and platitudes.

And it is this truthfulness—in the music, the lyrics, the spirit—of this CD that makes the thirteen-year gestation seem short. “No Place Left to Fall” is a consummate album of songs by an exceptional musician, lyricist, and singer. Bill Champlin may not be a household name but you get the sense that he doesn’t care about that stuff one way or another. Certainly he wishes mid-level artists who never get the recognition they deserve—while the talent-less phonies rake in the dough—and lends his name around. And other musicians know his reputation and bring him in for an assist. All that is well and good and part of what it takes to be a professional musician. But you can tell that it’s the Music that drives him. And it is through his music that he is known…even if you don’t know it.

Later update: I posted the link to this review on Bill Champlin's forum. The man himself read my review and wrote the following back on October 7:

Scott, I read your review and I thank you for the kind words. Not a lot of people get where my stuff's comin' from and you seemed to get it. People like it but not many "Get It". Thanks again, bill c.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Forgotten Books: Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner

Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. If my research is any indication, they are two truly forgotten detectives created by one of the most famous writers of the twentieth century. How could that happen? Oh, right. Erle Stanley Gardner, the man who created the mismatched team of Cool and Lam happened also to create the world’s most famous defense lawyer, Perry Mason. Easy mistake to make. It’s kind of like remembering that George Lucas also wrote the movie “Willow,” except, you know, “Willow” wasn’t very good.

Not the case with Cool and Lam. I pondered starting this series with the first book, The Bigger They Come. I even asked around and folks like Bruce Grossman over at Bookgasm assured me that these books could be read in any order. Since I am still a freshman at the University of Crime Fiction, I decided to trust a couple of tenured professors, Charles Ardai and Max Phillips of Hard Case Crime. If such a university existed, the books published by Hard Case Crime would be required reading. You can tell what Ardai and company think of Cool and Lam: the third book they published was Top of the Heap, a 1952 book that was the thirteenth in a series that ran twenty-nine books. Deferring to their knowledge, I read Top of the Heap.

Boy, was this book fun! I haven’t enjoyed a book like this since The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow. After reading The Case of the Velvet Claws, the first Perry Mason book, I thought I knew what to expect from Gardner. Not even close. I guess this is why he chose to write the first few Cool and Lam books under a pen name, A. A. Fair.

Like any good story, it’s the characters that make this story. Bertha Cool is not obese but she wears her one hundred and sixty pounds well. She’s a widow (something I picked up in research because it’s not mentioned in this novel) and her voice is imposing and you can tell from the prose that she fills a room with her mouth, if not her body. And she loves money. At least twice in the first chapter, her eyes are described as “greedy.” And she’s got a new case, one that Lam notes must be worth a lot of money because he heard the tone of voice she gave to the new client. Lam “knew from experience that it tool cold, hard cash to get Bertha to assume that ingratiating manner and that cooing, kittenish voice.”

If Bertha Cool is like Oliver Hardy, Donald Lam is Stan Laurel. He couldn’t be more opposite of Bertha if he tried. In fact, Bertha, late in the book, nicely describes her partner: “You little two-bit, skinny-necked, flat-chested, dimple-waisted, beetle-browed, double-crossing bastard.” Oops. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back and see how it all started.

John Carver Billings the Second comes into the offices of Cool and Lam looking for help. It seems that Maurine Auburn, the girlfriend of a gangster, “Gabby” Garvanza, has disappeared. Gabby is recovering in a hospital with too many bullet holes in his body. Maurine, not worrying too much about Gabby, was seen at a party with an escort a few days ago. Unfortunately, she ditched the escort and left someone else. No big deal for most people. Except for Billings. He was the ditched escort. But, not to be outdone, Billings, that same night, found two other girls with which to spend time. This new trio crashed at a motel and, by morning, the two gals had also gone. Now, Billings, thrice stood-up, needs an alibi for that night so the police don’t go suspecting him of having anything to do with Maurine’s disappearance.

Simple case for Bertha: find the girls, keep the $300 Billings already paid in cash and collect a $500 bonus. Not so simple for Lam, who immediately has reservations and questions that can’t be easily answered. Berthe, the smell of greenbacks filling her nose, sends Lam out of the office to find the girls. It’s not giving anything away to say the more Lam discovers, the more complicated the case gets. What started out as a small case with just one objective explodes up into a larger case involving murder, money, misunderstandings, and mining assets.

The entire story is told in Lam’s first person voice. And he is a smart-ass. A funny smart-ass, but a smart-ass nonetheless. The writing style is quite different than the prose Gardner uses for the one Perry Mason novel I’ve read. Granted, Top of the Heap was published nearly twenty years after The Case of the Velvet Claws so, undoubtedly, Gardner honed his writing skill.

Lam’s voice is fresh. He gets his secretary to tag along as they case the motor court where Billings passed out in the room with the two girls. You can get a taste of the relationship between Lam and Elsie Brand, his secretary, in these lines.
“How’s Bertha?” [Elsie said]
“Her same old irascible, greedy, profane self. How would you like to act the part of a falling woman?”
“A fallen woman?”
“I said a falling woman.”
“Oh, I see. Present participle. What do I do?”
Grammar jokes in a mystery novel. Couldn’t get away with it in 2008 mainly because the general public doesn’t even know what a present participle is. But in 1952, this line probably garnered a few chuckles. And I certainly wanted more from these two. Perhaps in other books.

All kidding aside, Lam is a small man who uses his brain like a chess player. If he has a hunch about something, say the actions of Person A, he goes to great lengths to get his answer. In order to verify his hunch before meeting Person A, Lam will talk with Person B. Then, he’ll go to Person A and, using information acquired from Person B, find new clues that he needs when he talks with Person C, the real focus of the investigation that you, the reader, probably didn’t even pick up on. He’s very smart but his brain gets him into trouble.

Unlike other PIs in literature, Lam can’t fight his way out of pretty much anything. And he gets scared along the way. He bends the law to meet his needs, even bending the truth at times. But his actions get him into some potentially hot water. If a hunch fails, he’s on the outs with the cops and the bad guys. This vulnerability made Lam instantly more real to me and, frankly, more relatable. He’s a bit like John Blake, the lead character in the two Richard Aleas (pen name of one Charles Ardai) books published by Hard Case Crime, Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence. They get by with brains, not brawn. I love my tough guy PIs but Donald Lam is a nice change of pace.

What surprised me was Bertha’s absence from this story. She was in chapter one and the last chapter. I expected more. Again, maybe she’s featured in other books. A nice note I learned about the series, which started in 1939, is that Lam goes off to fight in World War II and returns after the V-J Day. That’s very cool to me: having a fictional lead character actually leave the stage for a few books.

What I Learned As A Writer: The puzzle and the summation. Like I mentioned in my review for The Case of the Velvet Claws, Gardner is a master at creating a puzzle. It’s intricate and Gardner’s lawyerly mind really shines at the end when Lam lays out the final solution. As with the Perry Mason book, I re-read chapter one after I finished the book. It really is all there. Fantastic.

And it’s in these ‘summation’ scenes where a certain style of Gardner’s prose comes out. He lets Lam basically just stand there and talk. There were sections of sometimes half a page with Lam just talking. There were paragraph breaks but no extra prose, no “he said” or “he smoked a cigarette,” or “he walked across the room.” Nothing but dialogue. In my own writing, I’ve been so accustomed to putting in these little elements that some of the force of the dialogue is lost. Gardner’s way is much more direct. And there’s certainly some merit to it. I don’t know if that kind of prose will fly nowadays but I’ll certainly try it.

Speaking of trying things, I’ll be avidly searching for the other Cool and Lam books out there. I flat out loved this book. I’ve already started my search. It turns out I didn’t have to look far. In a big box of books—mostly westerns—I inherited from my grandfather, I found a couple of Cool and Lam books. Thanks, Grandpa. Guess he liked them, too.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Treason at Hanford: Chapter 14 online

Chapter 14 of Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery is now online over at Texas Pulp Writer.

Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Hungry Enough" by Cornelia Reed

What I like about a book or story title is the two different meanings it delivers. When you buy a book or read a story, the title means one thing. That is, a group of words, intended to illicit a reaction in the potential buyer’s mind, enough to buy the book or read the story. The second meaning comes after you’ve completed the story. Then, you can look back on the title and see a whole different meaning. That’s what happens when you read Cornelia Reed’s short story “Hungry Enough.”

The story opens with Julia being driven by her friend, Kay, back to Kay’s mansion in southern California. They’ve had too many gins over lunch and Kay wants to show Julia some clothes she’s purchased for her. You see, both women are life-long friends and they came out to California in the late 1950s to find stardom and a husband. Kay’s found the latter in the person of Kenneth, a rich producer. Julia small credit is as an ingénue on the television show “Perry Mason.” Kay has money to spare and she seems to like to spare it on Julia.

When they get to Kay’s house, Julia discovers that Kenneth is dead. Apparently, the cables that suspended a large glass slab over the master bed have snapped and poor Kenneth got it in the face. Julia calls her boss, a PI, and he comes to take care of the mess.

Where the title of the book comes in is in a bit of dialogue the two women have on the way to the mansion. Kay laments Julia’s husbandless status as a way not to talk about the dashing of her own dreams of fame and stardom. They talk about the younger women who constantly arrive in Hollywood via Greyhound buses and how pretty they are.
“I’m better looking.” [Kay says]
“Fairest one of all,” I said. “But you aren’t hungry enough. You never were.”
Again, this one line in the story has more than one meaning. It’s been established that Kay is a milquetoast when it comes to her husband. He lavishes her with gifts and material possessions but she’s not happy, especially after the one night when she discovered what Kenneth really used the suspended glass slab for. And you realize her “hunger” can be interpreted in more than one way. Wonderful way to be subtle while still allowing the double meaning to cut you. By the end of the story—which has a great last line—you’re just smiling and nodding your head.

There’s also a little element of “The Sixth Sense” to this story. When you get to the end, read it again and you’ll see all the signposts of the eventual outcome—unless you saw them the first time. I didn’t and that second time was just as fun.

This is the third story I’ve read from A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, published by Busted Flush Press, and edited by Megan Abbott. This story has been nominated for the 2008 Shamus Award. The winners will be announced 10 October 2008.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Book Review: Die a Little by Megan Abbott

You know that urban myth, story, or whatever that says if you put a frog in boiling water, it’ll jump out. However, if you put a frog in cold water and turn up the heat, it’ll be boiled alive because it can’t recognize the changes around it? Keep that in mind as you read Die a Little (2005), Megan Abbott’s rich noir debut.

Recently, my mom asked me what I meant by the term “noir.” I told her that it derived from the term the French gave to the dark, black-and-white films in the immediate post-World-War-II years. These stark films, usually crime dramas, focused on people living in a world rent open by the horrors of global war and near genocide. Cynicism was openly displayed. Morality seemed to take a siesta for six years and many people wondered why it all mattered. The films, and later novels and short stories, usually had gangsters, femme fatales, cops, private investigators, and all sorts of people life seemed to turn away. And in many of these stories, regular people stumbled through a shadowy door, a door they rarely noticed and, if they did, walked past quickly or on the other side of the street. Because what these regular people saw when they opened their eyes on the other side of that door changed them forever. They can’t un-see what they’ve seen. They just try to get back out of the door as quickly as possible and try to forget. But they can’t.

Lora King is one of those people. She’s a school teacher and the sister of Bill King, a junior investigator with the DA’s office. With their parents dead, they are the only family each of them has and they cling to each other like drifters on a life raft. They do anything to protect each other, they love being with each other. They are content. Until Alice Steele shows up and changes everything.

But, like the frog in water, the change is not instant. No, it’s gradual, a simmer that slowly captures you, the reader. It starts off with Alice and Bill getting married—saw that coming, didn’t you?—and, just like that, Lora has a sister, a new family member, and someone with whom to share Bill and his attention. Alice dives into being the best housewife in the history of housewives, throwing lavish parties, baking all day, and, presumably, satisfying Bill in bed, probably every night. However, Alice’s domestic actions hide a past, a past that Lora starts to question and investigate. She’s the regular person who has gone through the dark door. Unlike other protagonists in some stories, Lora steps in willingly. And stays. And looks around. And then goes deeper, looking for the truth. What she finds disturbs her, makes her worry about her brother’s safety. And then people—men—start noticing her. But it’s not the men she’s worried about. It’s Alice.

Megan Abbott has earned rave reviews for her first three novels, Die a Little, The Song is You, and Queenpin, the last of which earned her an Edgar Award. In her first book, she takes us back to 1950s Los Angeles. Like many old-school authors who actually wrote in that decade, Abbott’s book evokes the Eisenhower era in a pitch perfect manner. Honestly there is a certainly timelessness to the tone of the novel. I listened to the audiobook version via Audible so I didn’t read the dust jacket. I didn’t know if the 1950s was referenced or not. I just went with it knowing it was a period piece. It wasn’t until some character mentioned Maime Eisenhower that I knew it was in the 1950s. But the book lives in that wistful feel of yesterday, when all was better. Or so we thought.

The little nuances Abbott inserts into the prose really give this novel a sense of place and time: the Philco TV, Doris Day records playing at a party, Louis Prima on the radio. Even the little nicknacks of a 1950s housewife—copper baking pans, Joy of Cooking cookbook, themed parties—enveloped me as I listened to this story. If you can’t quite get a mental image of the 1950s reading Die a Little—don’t know how you couldn’t—just watch “Mad Men” and then bring some of those images back with you. I know the years of the TV show “Mad Men” are the early 1960s before Jack Kennedy was shot. But historical eras are not always defined by years. The “1950s” as an era lasted from Ike’s election in 1952 until the gunshots rang out in Dallas, TX, in 1963. As such, the visual quality of “Mad Men” and the visual prose of Die a Little share a common bond.

The prose style is interesting and subtle. The main characteristic of the prose is the voice. This is a first person story with Lora telling us everything. When she is relaying current events, she uses the present tense. When she’s letting you know something that happened in the past, she uses the past tense. I’ll admit that it certainly made the flashback scenes immediately evident. Sometimes, third person narrators have to use the past perfect tense to note flashbacks: “When L. B. Jeffries had seen his neighbor, Lars Thorwald, apparently kill his wife, he reacted with shock and dropped his binoculars.” (Bonus points for anyone who can identify that movie.) As easy to understand as the tense shifts are in this novel, I’ll admit that they usually work better with a third person narrator. The conceit of all first-person narrations is that the “I” person is telling you, the reader, the story. Thus, by definition, it’s all in the past. Having the “I” narrator—Lora King—tell you “I move across the room and pick up the phone” breaks down the conceit. It’s not altogether bad, it’s just apparent.

One of the modern rules of writing we authors have ground into us is to avoid adverbs. If the adverb is not evident from the dialogue, then rewrite the dialogue. Or fix the prose. Back in the day, when Chandler, Miller, Keene, and others were banging out their Gold Medal books, adverbs were all the rage. Well, not really but adverbs were used in place of extra prose and, in the days where these old authors wrote hours a day and finished books in mere weeks, this was acceptable. Not so today. The beauty of Abbott's prose is the profuse use of adverbs. They’re everywhere. Adjectives, too. But this merely adds to the nostalgic quality of this book. It really reads as if it were written back in the 1950s, with a deadline staring Abbott square in the face.

Unlike other noir books, this novel is not fast-paced. In many noir books, the action starts on page one, maybe even paragraph one, and never lets up. It’s easy to do with 60,000-word books. Not so with Die a Little. Remember that frog I mentioned earlier? Well, you, the reader, are the frog. You know there is something wrong with Alice, you just do. You probably even know it merely by looking at that gorgeous cover. But Lora doesn’t. She proceeds slowly—at times too slowly—as she investigates things she isn’t supposed to know about: drugs, prostitution, rape, violence against women. She takes tentative steps, each time delving deeper into a part of LA she had not idea existed. But it’s to save her brother so she’ll go wherever she has to go to save him.

The climax of the book—not giving anything away here—is not some shoot’em up blockbuster where Lora stands with a gun in her hand, a wounded Bill at her feet, with cops and gangsters converging. No, just like the rest of the book, the ending is restrained, almost like the decade to which it owes its origin. But it’s not without tension and resolution. It is entirely within the framework presented. Lora is a schoolteacher, not an action hero. The methods she uses to get what she wants is entirely within her character. To be honest, her methods are somewhat in the same vein as Angel Dare, the lead character in Christa Faust’s 2008 novel Money Shot. In both books, Lora and Angel are true to themselves. Angel, at the end of her story, as I mention in my review of the book, has a choice: be herself or be something she’s not. Either way, she has to live with her choice. At the end of Die a Little, Lora faces a final taunt from Alice. Alice, you see, confesses that she’s played Lora from the get-go and, Alice thinks, Lora liked what she saw when she opened that door to the darkness. Alice gives example after example, up to and including the sex Lora had with a man from Alice’s past. Through it all, Alice believes, Lora liked it all. Lora’s answer is, well, you’ll just have to read this entertaining book.

What I Learned As A Writer: Word choice and pace. Word choice is the easier one. Abbott clearly is in love with words. She uses them expertly throughout the book, evoking exactly what she wants in the reader’s mind. It’s the kind of treatment of words and prose that makes a wannabe author like me grab the book and a highlighter and just mark through gorgeous passages. Come to think of it, I just might.

Pace is a tricky thing. Old school authors started at a fast pace and maintained it through to the end of a book. But those books were nice, short, 180-page affairs that cost dimes or quarters. Nowadays, we are faced with the 500-page tomes that cost $25 in hardback or $8 for a paperback. As such, it’s almost impossible to maintain a fast pace through 500 pages and some authors have tried and failed. The beauty of the slower-paced novel is that the writer can build momentum toward a thrilling conclusion. Tension becomes present on every page. Is this the scene where Lora blows everything open? Is this the scene where Lora learns something she wishes she didn’t? And it’s not just tension, it’s suspense. Die a Little is a suspense novel in the old style, with the threat of evil lurking just on the next page. I did that with my first novel, a historical mystery, and Abbott did it with her first novel. I like the slow-burn, gradual suspense build-up pace of books like this one as long as it delivers. Die a Little delivered.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Music Review: The Girl in the Other Room by Diana Krall

In 2004, Diana Krall tried something different and was savaged for it.

Up until that year, Krall had been riding high. She crept slowly to the world’s attention although the jazz clan knew of her long before the rest of us did. Her first breakout CD was All for You, a Tribute to the Nat King Cole trio. After another CD devoted to love songs, Krall exploded on the world stage in 1998 with When I Look in Your Eyes. That CD had the distinction of being the first jazz CD to be nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy. She followed with 2001’s The Look of Love, a lush, orchestral album, rich in jazz history with a modern touch. The DVD, Live in Paris, captured Krall at the zeitgeist of this run.

All of a sudden, things in her personal life simultaneously fell apart and found new joy. Her mother died in 2002 as did professional mentors Rosemary Clooney and Ray Brown, the man who helped convince Krall to move from her native Canada to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. These tragedies might have been worse if not for her newfound love interest Declan MacManus. What? You don’t know that name? How about his profession nom de guerre: Elvis Costello. It cannot be coincidence that the confluence of personal loss, personal happiness, and the presence of a brilliant songwriter prompted Krall to try something new on her follow-up. She wrote her own songs.

Krall is, like all artists, a creator. You can’t deny that, for example, the Krall version of “The Look of Love” or gender-swapping of Cole’s “I’m an Errand Girl for Rhythm” are new songs, ones different from other versions out there. But, for all the reasons listed above and others we don’t know, Krall felt the urge to create her own work, to say something in her own voice. And the resulting CD is something very special: The Girl in the Other Room.

Krall wrote half of the twelve tracks on this CD with her new husband, whom she married in 2003. In liner notes on her website, Krall comments that she wrote pages and pages of thoughts, memories, and impressions but it was Costello who trimmed and honed the thoughts into verses and stanzas. What you experience in these songs is an adult woman—not some Top 40 teeny bopper—coming to terms with heartbreak, loss, the meaning of love and family, and romance.

If there’s one song that has it all, it’s the title track. The main character is alone in a room in a house. The silence closes in on her. She’s thinking. She’s remembering her mother. The musical arrangement intensifies this feeling, opening with a simply guitar chords by Anthony Wilson. The aural quality of the guitar evokes emptiness. The funeral’s over, perhaps, because there’s murmuring from a different part of the house. She’s looking at her reflection and questioning herself. Later in the song, the same girl is with her lover as they undress and fall together. She questions whether or not they should be together, but she finally realizes life goes on. The girl in the mirror recognizes herself. She’s different now, but still the same person she was and always has been. In all, this song is a positive song, one about overcoming calamity and still living as well as possible. It’s not a little like us here in Houston as we pick up the pieces after Hurricane Ike and move forward. To stay is to stagnate.

Not every song is about love and loss. There are songs about Krall’s new place in life: as a wife, as a seasoned professional. “I’ve Changed My Address” shows Krall reflecting on her earlier life playing in jazz bars, sharpening her chops. Now, it’s a sports bar. I think we all can relate to this kind of jarring change, where our sepia-tinted memories clash with modern realities. The music evokes the past, coming across as the type of song Krall would have played back in the day, a song that could have found it’s way onto the soundtrack of “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” Not that Krall would ever sulk over a piano. But this song, and her voice, certainly imply that she could.

If you’ve seen a photograph of Krall, you know she is one of the most beautiful performers out there, jazz field or otherwise. Tabloid-wise, you never heard about her relationships until she hooked up with Costello. However, in her cover of the Chris-Smither-penned tune, “Love Me Like a Man,” made popular by Bonnie Raitt, a little of her romantic anger busts out. The words are like lashes of a whip, complaints to which, I suspect, many women can attest:
The men that’s I’ve been seeing, baby
Got their souls up on a shelf
You know they could never love me
When they can’t even love themselves

I come home sad and lonely
Feel like I wanna cry
I need someone to hold me
Not some fool to ask me why
It’s this kind of song that makes us men just mute. We don’t know what to say to a woman who’s singing like this. And that’s the problem. This track features Krall’s touring musicians of Jeff Hamilton on drums and John Clayton on bass, still with Wilson on guitar. There’s an effortlessness present in this song, a knowing something that you can’t get with just studio musicians. These players know each other and push and pull throughout the song like old friends. It’s during Wilson’s solo where Krall breaks out a couple of “yeahs,” something that came from within her. Again, modern, over-produced CDs don’t usually allow this kind of personal statement. But then, that’s what this CD is all about.

“Love Me Like a Man” is not the only timely cover Krall performs. Tom Waits’ “Temptation” comes across as that silky, snaky tune you’d hear on a late Saturday night, when you find yourself faced with something you know is wrong, something you’d have to come to terms with the following Sunday morning in a church pew. But, damn, it’s so good here, in the dark on Saturday night. The Hammond B3 organ, played by Neil Larsen, sneaks in on verse three, a sly reminder of the snake that is temptation. You can’t help but wonder if the temptation Krall sings of is the very album she’s creating, one that is of her and by her, not necessarily what the jazz community thinks she should create. You get that vibe from her subtle counter melody under Wilson’s guitar solo. It’s a question that is left unanswered.

My favorite song is a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.” In this song, Krall sings of highways, of constant movement, diving down for that “something shiny,” searching for love and music, trying to find it in every nook and cranny she can. She laments “How’m I ever going to know my home when I see it again.” You can’t help but hearken back to the character in “The Girl in the Other Room” questioning herself as well. It’s a well-chosen cover and the soaring solo Wilson delivers is fantastic.

I have mentioned other musicians but I need to turn to Krall’s own musicianship on the piano. She is an accomplished piano player but not one who knows only one thing or one style. What this collection of songs—and, by the way, Krall is credited with the music for all twelve songs—demonstrates is Krall’s ability to pull from the piano exactly what the lyrics require. That’s a benefit of being a composer, singer, and player. She brings out breathy notes for some slower, emotional songs, evoking Vince Guaraldi’s sound on “Almost Blue.” She bangs out octave-based accompaniments in other, broader songs. And her solos express a command of the instrument that rivals few in the jazz world.

After listening to the album, you have to wonder why this CD earned such mixed reviews when it came out and in the four years since. The folks in the jazz tribe certainly loved it when Krall covered old songbook titles but balked when she struck out on her own. Why? Do they just want to pigeon hole her? Ditto for some of the folks who reviewed the CD on Amazon. They loved her previous CDs when she sang love songs but didn’t like this one. Why?

One reason could be our society’s tendency toward the simple. We don’t often like to think and The Girl in the Other Room requires thinking. Sure, there are a couple of tunes where you can check your brain at the door but the rest, the autobiographical material, calls for listener involvement. There’s a saying that a book is never finished until a reader reads it. The same could be said for an album’s worth of music. And in The Girl in the Other Room, Diana Krall has challenged us as listeners. She wants to show us her painful journey through the loss of a mother, something we all have to deal with a sometime in our lives. She shows us that loss hurts, it can be debilitating, but there is always hope. A line from “Narrow Daylight” compactly expresses this hope: “Is the kindness we count upon hidden in everyone?”

And if you don’t want to think too hard about one woman’s journey from the valley to the mountaintop, just listen to the music. It’s stark, it’s expressive, it’s tentative, it’s soaring. As is this CD. I, for one, hope that Krall delivers another album’s worth of songs she herself pens. She’s a mother now. I can’t help but wonder how that experience has affected her muse. I don’t expect it to have the resonance the The Girl in the Other Room has but, then, this CD was a complete surprise. I look forward to being surprised again.

NOTE: The DVD, Diana Krall: Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, is the visual document of the tour promoting this CD. Nine of the twelve songs from The Girl in the Other Room show up on this DVD. The songs are expanded to allow more soloing and interpretation. Some of the tracks exceed the studio tracks. It’s a nice comparison piece to the 2001 “Live in Paris.” Same artist, different vibe. She’s visible happy during both shows but you can’t help but wonder if she’s just a little more excited about playing her own songs on the Montreal DVD. As a creator, I certainly would be.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Forgotten Books: The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

Perry Mason. Bet you instantly thought of Raymond Burr, the actor who played Mason on CBS from 1955-66, right? Who didn’t? I did as I read The Case of the Velvet Claws, the first Perry Mason novel, published in 1933. I’ve been wanting to read some Perry Mason novels (there are 80) for awhile but I didn’t want to start just anywhere. Sure, I’ve been told by more than one source that there is no chronological order to these books. Be that as it may, I am a purist when it comes to series. And, as a writer and creator of characters myself, I wanted to see how Erle Stanley Gardner started when he created the most famous lawyer in crime fiction.

Picturing Burr is not a bad place to start. You see, Mason in the novels is hardly described at all. His secretary, Della Street, gets more words of description (“slim of figure, steady of eye”) than does Perry Mason. The one feature of Mason’s physical appearance that Gardner describes more than once are his eyes. In fact, it only takes six sentences from page one to get a description of Perry Mason’s eyes:
"Only the eyes changed expression. He [Mason] gave the impression of being a thinker and a fighter, a man who could work with infinite patience to jockey an adversary into just the right position, and then finish him with one terrific punch.”
Knowing what I do about the television shows—Mason never loses—it’s remarkable that there, in paragraph one of book one, the Mason template is laid out. Three pages later, Mason, himself, lays out his mission statement to his new client:
"Nobody ever called on me to organize a corporation, and I’ve never yet probated an estate. I haven’t drawn up over a dozen contracts in my life, and I wouldn’t know how to go about foreclosing a mortgage. People that come to me don’t come to because they like the looks of my eyes, or the way my office is furnished, or because they’ve known me at a club. They come to me because they need me. They come to me because they want to hire me for what I can do.”
She (the client) looked up at him then. “Just what is it that you do, Mr. Mason?” she asked.

He snapped out two words at her. “I fight!”
Hard to argue with that line. And Mrs. Eva Griffin doesn’t. She’s in trouble and she hires Mason to help her get out of it. The previous evening, Mrs. Griffin was out with Harrison Burke, a man who was not her husband, a man running for office. When a hold-up occurs at the hotel where they were dancing and dining, the police arrive. One of the sergeants, a friend of Burke, recognizes him and knows that the newspaper reporters will have a field day with the news of Burke and a married woman. That officer allows them to stay away from the reporters and then smuggles them out the back. Everything’s good to go except Frank Locke, the editor of Spicy Bits, a gossip rag, finds out and threatens to publish the information.

Now, Mrs. Griffin is asking Perry Mason to help her. His first response: have Burke pay Locke off. That surprised me a little, knowing what I know about the TV version and Mason's stone cold integrity. And with Mason’s fixation on money, he not unlike Bertha Cool, Gardner’s other famous creation. But Mrs. Griffin refuses because she wants to keep Burke’s name out of the papers. She lays down some cash on Mason’s table and gives her new lawyer one tidbit of information: Locke has a secret he’s trying to keep hidden. Mason rushes off to expose the secret and use it as leverage against Locke. The trail leads to one George Belter, owner of Spicy Bits. And his wife is there, none other than Mason’s client, Mrs. Eva Belter.

From this point, the book races along but not before George Belter’s shot dead, and Eva Belter tells the police that she heard Perry Mason’s voice in her husband’s bedroom seconds before the gunshot. Now, Mason must clear his own name while simultaneously looking out for the interests of his client. You think he can do it? Seriously, do you?

I am not an avid watcher of the TV show so I can’t say how Burr-as-Mason goes about doing his job. And I’ve only read book #1 so, if Mason changed his tactics throughout the novels, I can’t know about it either. I will say this: Mason is quite hand-on in this case. In fact, the most surprising thing he does is sock a guy to the ground. Didn’t see that kind of action coming, but loved it. Another interesting aspect of this case was how soon Mason had an idea as to the truth of the entire plot. But he needed proof. And he went about getting the proof in ways I also didn’t see coming. He set up on of the characters, not knowing, for sure, if his set-up would work. For example, he went to a pawn shop owner and paid the man $50 to verify that whomever Mason came back with was, in fact, the purchaser of the gun used in the crime. Now, as a reader, I got to wondering: who will Mason bring back? Later, Mason goes to another character and all but blackmails that character into saying something that needed to be said in front of a third party. Brilliant tactics but not entirely on the up-and-up.

The language of the book is obviously dated in places. Gardner loves his adverbs and uses some of them over and over again, including the word “meaningly.” In an effort not to type (or dictate as Gardner did) the word “car” or “automobile” constantly, Gardner interchanges the word “machine.” It’s a bit odd to read a car described that way. And, like William Colt MacDonald in Mascarada Pass, Gardner spells out, phonetically, drunken speech, employing words like “fixsh,” “shtayed,” and “coursh.” Humorous and easy to understand but, again, things we modern writers could never get away with.

And speaking of things you can’t get away with, there’s Gardner’s choice of the word “girl” to describe Della Street. She’s 27 and, while we never get the age of Perry Mason, he can’t be that much older than she. But, nonetheless, Gardner has “the girl” get a file or “the girl” answer the phone or “the girl” take down dictation. The biggest shock of the story—and I don’t this is giving anything away; apologies if it’s so—was when Della and Perry kissed. It didn’t seem romantic and I didn’t get the impression that there was something more. But it was there. You never saw that in the TV show. Just one more reason to read these books, especially the early ones, to see how Perry Mason was originally portrayed.

There’s a quote about Erle Stanley Gardner on the back cover of the Hard Case Crime edition of Top of the Heap, a Cool and Lam story that, I think, sums up Gardner’s technique of crafting a story: "Among his many other virtues, Erle Stanley Gardner is surely the finest constructor of hyper-intricate puzzles in evidence..." The Case of the Velvet Claws is certainly intricate, a well-crafted tale. Heck, half the fun was re-reading chapter 1 when everything was set up, now that I knew the ending. But, like a good mystery author, all the clues were there. When Mason delivers his summation, you want to smack yourself on the forehead. (His summation, by the way, was not in a courtroom, something I, of course, kept waiting for. Not in this book. Perhaps Book #2.) As hard-boiled as the book is, this is the coziest mystery book I’ve read, perhaps ever. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to many more Perry Mason mysteries.

Historical Note: the edition I have is the 16th printing from Pocket Book, June 1944. What makes this edition unique is the wartime nature of the presentation. On the back cover, in a small black square, are the words “Share this book with someone in uniform.” At the end of the book, after the story and biographical information, is a page imploring the reader to buy war savings stamps and certificates. Lastly, there is a list of books published by Pocket Books, seven pages long, complete with asterisks noting which titles fall under 8 oz. and, thus, can be sent overseas without any written authorization. These seven pages are peppered with testimonials by servicemen from around the globe. The most telling feature of the introduction is about the POWs. Those Americans imprisoned by Germany can receive books via a Prisoner-of-War Service established by Pocket Books. Interestingly, the Americans captured by Japan were not allowed to be sent books. It’s a fascinating snapshot of a country at war and how even the simplest of entertainments—a mystery book—cannot escape the all-consuming nature of a world at war and the call to do one’s part.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Treason at Hanford: Chapter 13 online

[NOTE: I expected to get back on track with regular posts yesterday. Still had some stuff to do around the house including my day job. So, I start again today and will post my entry for the Friday Forgotten Books tomorrow. Pardon the interruption.]

Chapter 13 of Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery in online now over at Texas Pulp Writer.

For some interesting video footage of President Truman and the election of 1948, head on over to Tom Brokow's feature, "Turning Points" at MSNBC. Cool stuff. Truman's inaugural address, his DNC acceptance speech, and other fantastic footage including election night footage of reporters counting the votes with chalk on a blackboard!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ike: Our Aftermath

For any who were wondering, my family and I are all doing okay. In terms of what you see on TV, our “suffering” was mere inconvenience. No structural damage to the house. Lots and lots of limbs found themselves on the ground Saturday morning. Took most of the day to clean up just the front yard. We lost power at 1:15am on Saturday and it came back on this morning at 8:30am. That’s about 56 hours without power. Even with the full moon the past two nights, you don’t realize how dark the 4th largest city can get. It was quite eerie. We have a gas stove so we were able to eat the rapidly-defrosting food. My wife brought out the Southern in her on Saturday evening: flat-iron steak, kidney beans, and Johnny cakes. Wonderful!

Other than that great meal, the biggest issue we had was our food. Ice kept melting and we needed more. We drove out west on I-10 searching for ice. Found some at the HEB grocery story in Columbus, TX (78 miles west of Houston). The good folks there really served us Houston ______ (what do you call folks who leave Houston but then return within hours?) well. The weirdest thing we saw driving west was the randomness of the destruction. One billboard standing, the next blow away. One tree okay, the next one shredded. Odd. And this morning, we Houstonians got a taste of true autumn weather. Great timing.

An obvious thing that I, and everyone, learned is how completely connected TV and the Internet makes us. I am an avid radio listener (NPR, especially, with all their cool programming and great reporters who paint pictures with their words) and yet, relying only on radio is limiting. The radio announcers (KTRH: y’all are the best) did a fantastic job of passing on information. But they can only do so much. And it was not until this morning when we finally got to see the pictures of the destruction. Sobering.

Now, I count my family among the fortunate ones. Some of my friends had power restored on Saturday morning, mere hours after Ike left southeast Texas. The poor folks in eastern Harris County and other parts to the east have our prayers and our support. But the folks in Galveston are going to need a whole lot more. For any Texans reading this, I think most grocery stores around the state allow you to donate some extra cash to help the folks who have lost the most. I urge y’all to do what you can. For any readers beyond the Lone Star State, there are options for y’all as well. Red Cross is probably the best place to start.

One of the silver linings that emerge from tragedies like this is the goodness of people. Yes, there are the bad seeds and they are going to do what they do. And the media will show you that stuff ad nauseum. But there are many, many more good stories. Like this lady I saw this morning at noon. She was volunteering at a relief location, directing traffic. Why? Because she only lost power and wanted to help the folks who lost more. It’s too bad that it takes natural and man-made disasters to bring out the good in people.

Back to the subject of this blog: crime fiction and regular posts. I don’t expect to post a book review tomorrow nor will there be a music/movie review today. I’ll start my regular columns on Wednesday with a short story review and things should progress as normal as possible. And be sure to tune in on Friday for the Forgotten Books feature. I’m deciding between two books and even I don’t know which one I’ll pick.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ike Makes a Campaign Stop

It's a little past 8:05pm here in not-so-sunny Houston. Dunno when I'll be posting again since I expect not to have power tomorrow. We've done what we can. Time to hunker.

I went outside a took a few pictures. It's interesting see see a cloud the color of a bruise. Writers always seem to use that phrase and, yet, I can't remember ever seeing one. I have now.

If you're the praying kind, send some down here to the Gulf Coast. We're all going to need it.

See y'all on the other side.

Forgotten Books: Guns Along the Brazos by Day Keene

As I mentioned last week in my first Friday Forgotten Books column, I am fairly new to the crime fiction (and now western fiction) field. Thus, most of the books I’ll be reviewing are ones that I have chosen to read and report on in this blog. This approach will garner some hits and some misses. Guns Along the Brazos by Day Keene did hit the target but was no where near the bulls eye. In fact, I think it missed the target but still hit the hay bale on which the target was attached.

I treat the books and authors published by Hard Case Crime as an ongoing list of folks I need to read and know. One of my favorites so far is Day Keene’s Home is the Sailor. I noted in my review the paltry number of Keene titles available in modern editions. Imagine my great surprise and happiness when I stumbled upon a Keene book—a western no less—up in Canton, Texas at the First Monday Market.

Guns Along the Brazos, from what I can discover, is Day Keene’s only western. The native Chicagoan born Gunard Hjerstedt wrote tons of paperback originals, mostly crime stories. Here, he takes us to Texas circa 1870 by way of a Mexican prison. The night Confederate Major John Royal returned home from the war, he fled to Mexico after he saw his wife, Cora, in bed with another man. Years later, in a cantina, he kills the commandant of the local prison trying to uphold the honor of an eighteen-year-old senorita. He is sentenced to die. However, the night before he is to be executed, this same senorita, Catana, comes to his cell, tells him of a daring plan to fake his execution and help him escape. Oh, and they also have sex, natch. Things don’t go quite as planned and Catana, Royal, and two others scurry around Mexico eluding the Mexican federales, trying to make their way back to Texas.

Cora Royal, meanwhile, is scheming to carve out The State of Royal with herself as the figurehead. For all you non-Texans out there, since the Republic of Texas was annexed into the Union in 1845, there is a clause that allows Texas to divide itself into five states. It is this provision that Cora aims to use, if only she can get the citizens of Dry Prairie to vote on it. And she’ll use any means necessary to get her way.

Her husband, however, has something to say on the matter.

In the style of all good pulp stories, Keene doesn’t waste time building up character and situation. In the span of five pages of chapter one, John Royal has killed the commandant. The last two sentences are pretty fun: “He’d made a number of bad mistakes in his life. But killing a Mexican colonel in a country where the military ranked second only to God would probably be the last mistake he’d make.” Now, we’re off and running.

Keene knows his Texas history, at least the kind you’d find in an encyclopedia. He references the Black Beans of Salado incident as well as Texas geography. Guns Along the Brazos is officially the second western I’ve read and I enjoyed the Texas-specific material.

The things I questioned were some of the plot devices. Both John and Cora try to use divorce as a weapon. Cora, at one point, wants to bring in Catana and accuse John of adultery and spark a “lurid divorce” to get the tongues wagging in town. It struck me as a little too modern, this whole concept of a lurid divorce in the Victorian Era. Maybe I’m not as familiar with what was common back then but it’s my impression that divorce was a private thing, something avoided in conversation.

Keene had the action of the entire 128-page book take place over something like three years. In a book this short, you kind of expect the action to be mostly confined to a shorter time frame. At the very least, a prologue of sorts and then the main section. Not so here. Months pass between chapters 1 and 2, and more months pass as John makes his way up from Mexico to his old ranch. It jarred me in places and I had to adjust. Like my wife always tells me when she critiques my writing, if I pause, rewrite.

Keene’s prose has an economy to it that flows nicely. Not a spare word in the book. The reading does go by fast. I’m a slow-to-moderate reader and I banged out this book in just over two sittings. Like William Colt MacDonald’s book last week, Keene certainly sprinkles in more adverbs than I normally do but it wasn’t excessive.

You know how in soap operas—either day time or prime time—there are characters you just love to hate because they seem to have no other goal in life than to make everyone else’s life hell? That’s Cora Royal. She’s despicable but not always in a fun way. A humorous moment between Cora and her accomplice occurs when the analogy of Daniel and the lion’s den comes up. Cora makes the analogy and her lover replies that Daniel got out of the den unscathed. Cora’s response: “But I wasn’t one of the lions.” It’s funny and humorous but a bit trite.

The worse thing about the book is the progression toward the ending. I mean, come on, you pick up this book, read the premise, and you pretty much can script the ending. It happens that way but there was never events too dire to threaten John’s life. To be honest, I think Keene wrote internal doubt into John’s character just to give the reader some pause. It wasn’t enough.

Guns Along the Brazos (1967) was published two years before Keene’s death. By the late 1960s, the counter-culture movement was in full swing. Keene, however, was born in 1903. He was old school, traditional. That might help explain the sexist scene at the end. I was a bit shocked. And the very end? Just fill in your best western theme song as the camera pans up.

Of the two westerns I’ve read so far—Mascarada Pass and Guns Along the Brazos—I certainly enjoyed Mascarada Pass much more than Guns Along the Brazos. Keene’s book wasn’t bad. It’s just not going to stay with me for very long. Home is the Sailor is much better. I suspect Keene’s crime novels are where his reputation lies in good standing. I have found one other Keene crime novel so far—Homicidal Lady—and I’ll get to it someday. In terms of western fiction, what I’m curious to know is if Keene’s style of western is more typical—no mystery involved; two factions opposing each other; land rights; etc.—or if MacDonald’s Quist books reflect a greater trend in western fiction. I aim to find out. And I hope I hit the target more often than not.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Chapter 12 of Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery - Online

I've put up Chapter 12 of Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery over at Texas Pulp Writer.

Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Marvel Noir

I'm basically a DC guy but the news that the folks at Marvel Comics are going to re-imagine Spider-Man, X-Men, and Daredevil as noir fiction from the 1930s has got me jazzed.

Check it out. (Thanks Doug Warren)

"Cutman" by Christa Faust

“Cutman” by Christa Faust

When I discovered Christa Faust earlier this year with her novel Money Shot, I started looking for other things she had written. Lo and behold I found that I already had a Faust-penned short story in A Hell of a Woman, the same anthology from which the Ken Bruen story I reviewed last week came. Judging an author by one book or story can be tricky. You only get a pattern the more you read. And, upon reading two stories by Faust, all I’ve got to say is watch out, brother, she’ll slay you with her words as soon as look at you.

A cutman is the guy at the side of a boxing ring whose sole job is to stop fighters from bleeding. Except that the Cutman in Faust’s story is a woman. But not just any woman. She is a self-described “big, ugly dyke” but she does her job well. And men respect her for it.

But not all men. Santiago Diaz, a fighter, doesn’t give the nameless Cutman a second look. He’s the boyfriend of the girl—Mia “Tinkerbell” Ortega—the Cutman loves and wants to be with. When Mia ends up in the hospital, suffering from injuries sustained in a “car accident” or “a fall,” the Cutman knows the truth. And knows who to blame. That’s when she decides to kill Diaz.

Like all good short stories, the ending is not what you see coming. Or, perhaps, you do, if you’ve got a twisted mind. Well, a lot of us do and we’re drunk on stories in books, TV, and film that ram the formulaic down our throats and tell us it’s something new. I’ll admit that I saw part of the ending coming, or rather, as I was reading the story, I thought “Wouldn’t it be interesting if this happened?” It did. Still, the story gives me a punch in the face when it happened.

If you listen to Faust in interviews, you’ll get an honest, blue-collar vibe from her: she’s just a storyteller, an 9-to5er who bangs out prose like other people mine coal or work a diner. But she’s gifted, especially with short, powerful sentences that can evoke a feeling in you that other authors need a paragraph or more to do. Here’s her narrator describing the boxing hall: “The raw, animal sound of the crowd. The fighters’ wordless language of grunts and heavy breath and the dull slap of leather against flesh. The smell of sweat under hot lights.” This isn’t Madison Square Garden. This is something old, beat-up, somewhat dingy where rules might be tossed if the price is right.

Stories, whether novels or short stories, need that killer opening line to reel us in and make us read the story. “Cutman” has two. The first line sets the hook: “Just because I’m a cutman, doesn’t mean I’m a man.” Okay, that’s intriguing, and, for folks like me, I needed to keep reading just to figure out what a cutman actually was. But then Faust really kicks it up with this sentence: “I guess you heard about what happened with Mia?” Okay, if you didn’t already have me, now I’m really there.

But I was already there. Faust has a way with prose that is not just workmanlike. Her characters sing with authenticity. She’s good. And I’ll read anything she writes. You should, too.

"Cutman" by Christa Faust, published in A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, edited by Megan Abbott, published by Busted Flush Press.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Book Review: Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake

As with most authors I read from Hard Case Crime, this is my first Donald Westlake book. In fact, HCC is now my standard for creating a list of Authors To Be Read. I know about Westlake only tangentially since he is such a large figure in crime fiction. I know he writes the Dortmunder books under his own name and the Parker books under his famous pen name, Richard Stark. I know his reputation as a comedic caper writer. So I approached Somebody Owes Me Money with high expectations.

And boy did Westlake deliver. Somebody Owes Me Money tells the story of New York cabbie Chester “Please call me Chet” Conway who is the self-described most eloquent cab driver in the Big Apple. He picks up a fare who leaves him not with a monetary tip but an inside line on a horse in a race. Fuming, Chet initially balks at the bet but then calls his bookie, Tommy McKay. I mean, thinks Chet, how can you not bet on a horse named Purple Pecunia? He does and the alliterative animal wins. Chet is now rich with $930 coming his way. He goes to Tommy’s house to collect…and finds his bookie dead on the living room floor, bullets having torn his chest open.

Then things really get out of hand. Like a good citizen, Chet calls the cops but during his conversation with the police, Tommy’s new widow shows up at the house, sees her dead husband, and starts yammering that Chet was the culprit. It was in this sequence that I got my first taste of Westlake’s humor with the widow ordering Chet to hang up while Chet tries to convince her that he is, in fact, talking with the police right now. The scene could have been played by Laurel and Hardy. I actually laughed out loud while driving my car, listening to the audio (more on that later). From there, Chet gets more and more in a pickle. The detectives don’t believe him, Tommy’s sister tries to kill him, rival gangs both think Chet is working for the other gang, and, to top it off, somebody takes a shot a poor Chet. He’s not having a good day, and all he wants—as he tells anyone who will listen—is to collect the $930 owed him.

The novel is copyright 1969, not quite old enough to evoke the 1940s or 1950s crime noir tradition but not quite new enough to evoke the later 70s or 80s vibe of Elmore Leonard. At the same time, Somebody Owes Me Money does not evoke what you normally think about when you hear the year “1969.” No hippies, no marches, no Woodstock. This is just New York City circa 1969 from a cabbie’s point of view. So you get the charming necessity of the characters needing coins for the public telephones while others casually carry around guns.

As with all books Hard Case Crime publishes, the book is blessed with gorgeous cover art and a gorgeous woman. That’s Abbie McKay, Tommy’s sister, who has arrived from Las Vegas with a single-minded purpose: find her brother’s killer. She first thinks Chet is the culprit and tries to shoot him but only winds up shooting a hole in his cab. For a man who, again, only wants his $930, Chet reluctantly agrees to help Abbie find the true killer. It’s a easy choice to make for Chet. Not only does he suspect that Tommy’s killer might give up the name of the guy from whom Chet can collect his, everybody now, $930 dollars, but Abbie’s dressed as she appears on the cover: mini skirt and go-go boots. What red-blooded man wouldn’t go wherever she went? In fact, when Chet brings her to his regular poker game, the reactions of the other men are hilarious.

The story is told from Chet’s point of view, all first person. That is a limitation because Westlake filters everything through Chet’s eyes. For example, in a third-person, multi-POV book, an author might jump into the head of the shooter as he aims for Chet. With the way Westlake presented everything, Chet gets shot and you don’t know by whom or why. But, by sticking with Chet’s POV and having him experience only things he witnesses, Westlake gives you a chance to examine the clues and evidence and see if you arrive at the same answer when Chet does.

Westlake puts Chet’s tongue firmly in his cheek all throughout the novel. At one point during his recovery, Chet is naked in bed and cannot get out of bed. Numerous gangsters and one detective stroll into the bedroom, all the while Chet is, well, in bed without clothes. He’s interrogated, he plays gin rummy with a gangster, he sleeps with Abbie but he only sleeps. It’s here that Chet thinks he’s like Nero Wolfe where everyone comes to him. And, as that section of the book progresses, every major character does, indeed, arrive at that apartment. It’s quite funny.

Chet is not some suave hero who fearlessly traverses through the events hardly getting scathed. Every time a gun is pointed at him, Chet does what normal people do: whatever the man holding the gun says. Which leads to a lot of prose passages that look and sound like this.

“Get up,” he said.
I got up.
“Put your hands on your head.”
I put my hands on my head.
“Don’t turn around!”
I stopped turning and waited.

On paper, it’s just straight action. But in the audiobook, it’s something else entirely. Stephen Thorne narrates this book flawlessly. His tone is pitch perfect as Chet, a man exasperated that everyone seems to think he knows something when all that he’s after is, well, “my $930.” Thorne adopts decent New York gangster accents for the various thugs and his voice for the detective—a calm, cool, dispassionate voice not unlike a father to his child who has just spilled milk—adds immensely to the scenes with the detective in them. Thorne finds the humor in the text and inflects his voice accordingly. Thus, the previous passage would look like this, with the italics indicating the added emphasis Thorne puts in the reading.

“Get up,” he said.
I got up.
“Put your hands on your head.”
I put my hands on my head. I started to turn around.
“Don’t turn around!”
I stopped turning and waited.

In film, stage, and TV, visual mediums all, it’s easy to break the fourth wall. Not so easy in books. But, late in the novel, when the true killer is revealed, Westlake breaks the fourth wall. And its hilarious. I can’t give it away here because I want you to read the book. Suffice it to say, the characters question the true killer’s identity because it didn’t hold true to form of a mystery novel. But, as I’ve said, the clues where there.

What I Learned As A Writer: Humor. Holy cow this book was funny, funniest book I’ve read in years aside from Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol. In Winslow’s book, much of the humor derived from the dialogue and the characters’ unique way of talking and seeing the world. With Somebody Owes Me Money, most of this humor is situational humor. It’s almost sitcom-ish, like a good episode of “Three’s Company.” Chet just shows up at Tommy McKay’s house to collect his—how much now? $930—and everybody else starts assuming Chet knows more than he does. Various characters even joke about it: “For someone who claims not to know anything, you sure turn up everywhere.” And no amount of logical explanation by Chet can totally convince all parties that he’s as innocent as he claims.

I make this point to demonstrate that Westlake, at least in this book, does not write jokes. There are some one-liners in the book but they come out natural and organic. I’ve read some books, not all crime fiction, where the author attempts to write jokes as part of the dialogue. It comes off stilted and unnatural. Not so Westlake.

Since most of the crime fiction I read is not the humorous kind, Somebody Owes Me Money was a breath of fresh air. I certainly got my money’s worth and it cost me a whole lot less than $930.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Even More Pelecanos

Head on over to The Rap Sheet for links to new interviews and reviews about George Pelecanos and his new book, The Turnaround.

Music Review: Chicago XI

If you really stop and think about it, listening to Chicago XI can be difficult. You see, the album was released in September 1977. Four months later, Terry Kath, original guitarist and the soul of Chicago, died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. Chicago has not been the same since.

Why is it hard? Because during these sessions, these guys really tapped back into what made them a unique band in rock history. They were not the band that exploded on the music scene in 1969 with Chicago Transit Authority. They had aged, evolved, and assimilated newer types of music into their overall sound. They had gone from progressive artists willing to experiment to a band that regularly produced Top 40 hits at a rapid pace. And then there was “If You Leave Me Now.” For all the longer, experimental, complex musicianship Chicago had demonstrated on their first nine albums, their first #1 hit was a simple ballad. How’d that happen?

Many bands, authors, movie stars, just about anyone who make a hit are quite willing to keep repeating said hit over and over. They think “Well, if it worked once, it’ll work a thousand times, right, and the public will just buy it over and over again.” To be sure, Chicago had moved away from the longer songs into shorter, radio-friendly tunes. But if you take Chicago XI as a response to “If You Leave Me Now,” you will discover that they were not going to keep producing the same song over and over again.

Not that “If You Leave Me Now, Part 2” isn’t there. It is. It’s track 2. But you have to get past one of Chicago’s killer tracks first. The opening track, “Mississippi Delta City Blues,” opens with Kath laying down a shuffle riff on guitar that Peter Cetera (bass) and Danny Serephine (drums) picks up on. In one of Kath’s more personal moments on tape, as the song kicks in, you actually hear him laughing. Many folks have postulated the meaning of the laugh. The general consensus is that Kath is laughing in pride at how kick-ass this song is. And for it finally to get on tape. They had been playing this song for years. An early version of it shows up on Live in Japan and as a bonus track on the Rhino re-issued Chicago V. I’m glad they waited.

The horns are fat, in your face, and all over the place. Kath’s guitar is funky and always present. You can just feel the swamp humidity when listening to this song. During the horn break, the blues feel makes way for a straight-ahead rock tempo and Kath changes his guitar sound to a traditional rock distortion vibe. You listen to this song in headphones and you can really hear all the rhythm guitar activity Kath is playing. It’s remarkable. By the end of the song, you, too, are laughing in pride. They nailed it.

“Baby, What a Big Surprise,” is, basically, “If You Leave Me Now, Part 2.” Strings: check. Acoustic guitar: check. Horns that are there but not in your face: check. Peter Cetera’s high tenor: check. It’s a good song. Cetera can write these ballads as good as anyone out there. It blasted up the charts. But it helped to solidify in the general public’s mind that Chicago was a ballad band. True, “Colour My World” (1970) was the first wedding song Chicago produced but it was the twofer of IYLMN and BWABS that pidgin-holed Chicago. And they ran with it in the 1980s. (See earlier comment about artist doing the same thing over and over again.)

“Till the End of Time” is another example of ‘give the mic to a horn player’ syndrome that took hold of Chicago in the 1970s. In one sense, it’s a sign of a willingness to experiment and that’s a good thing. But, when you realize that James Pankow (trombone; singer of “Till the End of Time”) and Lee Loughnane (trumpet, singer of “This Time”) and Cetera all have one song apiece out of a ten-song set, you might interpret that as another reaction to the success of “If You Leave Me Now.” Keep Cetera down. I’m not saying that’s what happened but you gotta believe that there might have been a few unrecorded Cetera tunes left in the vaults that could have made the cut above this song. What makes “Till the End of Time” important is the ending: Kath’s lead guitar makes its first appearance. Kath’s sound here, unlike his guitar sound in “Mississippi Delta City Blues,” is pure rock and distortion. It was a preview.

Robert Lamm makes his first vocal appearance on Chicago XI with track 4, “Policeman.” In another sign that these guys were mellowing as they aged, this is the same Lamm who put sound clips of protesters chanting outside the 1968 Democratic convention. Now, eight years later, he’s singing the virtues of law enforcement. Good, simple tune and one of the few times after their early period where a horn lays down an improv on tape.

The other main hit from Chicago XI was “Take Me Back to Chicago” and it rounds out what was side 1 of the LP back in the day. Danny Serephine co-wrote the song and it was a loving, wistful look back at the good old days in Chicago. Not unlike Chicago VIII’s “Old Days” but a lot less sappy. Lamm sings this one and his mellow voice really adds to the sepia quality of the lyrics. Another brushstroke added was Chaka Khan’s vocals. The Pointer Sisters hold the distinction of being the first female singers to perform with Chicago but Khan, here, gets a chance to belt it out. The closing sequence, underlined by a constant loop of the chant “take me back” is not unlike John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” where he does the same thing. Here, Khan lets loose while Lamm ‘preaches’ about all things Chicago. It’s a great song, one that was butchered during the editing process to make it palatable for Top 40 radio.

Side two opens with the third Lamm song in a row and a type of song that increasingly was left off of Chicago records: social message song. “Vote for Me” is a tongue-in-cheek riff on modern politics with Lamm acting as the candidate promising everything under the sun just to get elected. Granted, all of his promises are old-school Democratic ones but, then, that’s where Lamm comes from.

If any one song was a diametric opposite of “If You Leave Me Now,” it’s Kath’s “Takin’ It Uptown,” the second song on side two. The blistering guitar work that had only been hinted at during the first six songs exploded here. Incidentally, there is no brass in “Uptown.” Kath’s vocal stylings shine here, with him howling in places only to be answered by his own howling guitar. Listening to this track makes you pine for the rumored lost tracks Kath laid down in preparation for a solo album. Kath’s loss is felt most acutely here.

“This Time” is a simple, mid-1970s love song sung by the trumpet player. It’s got horns, a decent lead vocal, and that distinctive electric piano sound made famous by Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are.” What really makes this track stand out is Kath’s solo. With the hard rock guitar sounds still echoing in your ears from “Uptown,” Kath breaks out a solo that demonstrates his ability to script a solo. That is, with “Uptown” and other songs, you get the sense that Kath was merely improving in the studio. With “This Time,” Kath went for a feel, a mood, but not merely one. His solo is in three parts with three distinct guitar sounds and motifs. Remember, the mid 70s featured folks like Frampton, Tom Scholz (Boston), and others who were moving guitar solos forward in the wake of Hendrix’s absence. Kath showed on this solo that he could do it all, and in one extended sequence. Kath’s performance on “This Time” is one of his all-time best.

The album closes with a mini suite, the kind that made Chicago II and Chicago III so good. A short orchestral introduction (“The Inner Struggles of a Man”) segues into a Serephine-penned tune “Little One.” Serephine, a father by 1977, wrote this song to his kids explaining why ‘daddy’ always had to be away on the road, performing. Serephine wrote about his own longing to be with his family and his willingness to do anything for his kids. “Say the word and daddy will make it disappear.”

The song is wonderful, one of the best parent songs out there. The sentiments are common but easily conveyed in short couplets: “Don’t live in fear of the future/’Cause I will always be there.” The next verse explains why ‘daddy’s’ always away:
Oh my little one
Music is my life, I hope you understand
Traveling on the road with me you can see the way we live
Oh my little one
I will always cherish these days with you
As time goes by I hope you see the love I tried to give.
Finally, the last emotion is revealed: “Someday you’ll have your own little one/And you will always be there.”

Lyrically, the words shine. But what gives the song it emotional heft is that Terry Kath sings the song. He brings his soulful voice to bear on the joys of parenting and children. His own daughter was born the previous year so you know it was not too difficult for him to channel his own feelings. And they are plainly evident on the recording. During the ending vamp, Kath speaks things like “we’ll always be together” and “I love you so.” The strings fade and you are left with a pleasant smile on your face. It’s that good a song.

But then you realize that this is the last song Terry Kath ever recorded. Listening to it now, thirty-one years later, it’s heartbreaking to know that Kath would soon leave this world and his daughter. Knowing what we know now, it’s one of the most poignant songs in Chicago history, if not rock history.

Chicago XI is a milestone. It’s the last Chicago record with the original members. For all the success that came to them later, they were fundamentally changed by Terry Kath’s absence. Arguably, Chicago lost its soul when Kath died even though they did not lose their passion. His record as one of the best rock guitarist is laid out on the albums he made with Chicago. Perhaps some spirit was with the guys when they made Chicago XI because it’s a fitting ending to Kath’s career. It shines with the things we knew at the time—phenomenal guitar abilities, soulful singer, good songwriter—and, yet, it leaves us wanting more. If you listen to Kath progression as a guitarist from Chicago Transit Authority to Chicago XI, you witness a musician evolving, learning, and getting better and better. You pine for the lost opportunities, the lost music.

The music business, like any business, can drag a person down. The constant grind takes it toll on anyone. Some writers have said, in the years since, that Kath was unhappy in Chicago as his influence diminished as the sound of Chicago changed. Band members refute this. Kath loved music and loved Chicago. You could certainly interpret the lyrics of “Taking It Uptown” as Kath’ disillusionment with the music business or the band or even a premonition of his impending death. But I’ll point you in a different place that better demonstrates Kath’s approach to his life and music. Listen again to the opening seconds of “Mississippi Delta City Blues” and hear Kath’s chuckle as the song starts. Maybe he had some intuition of his demise. Whose to say? But that one chuckle says more to me than any lyric. To me, it’s Kath saying “Can you believe I get paid to have this much fun making music?”

Yeah, I believe.